Every Book Its Reader: The Power of the Printed Word to Stir the World


Inspired by a landmark exhibition mounted by the British Museum in 1963 to celebrate five eventful centuries of the printed word, Nicholas A. Basbanes offers a lively consideration of writings that have "made things happen" in the world, works that have both nudged the course of history and fired the imagination of countless influential people.

In his fifth work to examine a specific aspect of book culture, Basbanes also asks what we can know about such figures as John Milton, ...

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Inspired by a landmark exhibition mounted by the British Museum in 1963 to celebrate five eventful centuries of the printed word, Nicholas A. Basbanes offers a lively consideration of writings that have "made things happen" in the world, works that have both nudged the course of history and fired the imagination of countless influential people.

In his fifth work to examine a specific aspect of book culture, Basbanes also asks what we can know about such figures as John Milton, Edward Gibbon, John Locke, Isaac Newton, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Adams, Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, Henry James, Thomas Edison, Helen Keller––even the notorious Marquis de Sade and Adolf Hitler––by knowing what they have read. He shows how books that many of these people have consulted, in some cases annotated with their marginal notes, can offer tantalizing clues to the evolution of their character and the development of their thought.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Nothing engenders reading more effectively than reading books about books. In books like Gentle Madness and Patience & Fortitude, Nicholas Basbanes has paid tribute to the good works of bibliophiles, booksellers, and librarians in preserving the legacy of writing. In Every Book Its Reader, he describes the influence of the printed word on writers, thinkers, and world-beaters. His subjects cover the spectrum: from John Locke and Sir Isaac Newton to John Adams and Abraham Lincoln to the Marquis de Sade and Adolf Hitler. Basbanes' far-ranging explorations include sensitive assessments of writers' thinking habits and creative methods, along with perceptive interviews with contemporary writers including David McCullough, Elaine Pagels, Harold Bloom, Helen Vendler, and Christopher Ricks.
Brigitte Weeks
“If Oprah would only join the ranks of Cervantes’s fans, he’d have a chance at today’s bestseller list.”
Amanda Heller
“These essays…occupy a corner of the grand salon of the history of ideas.”
Michael Dirda
“‘Affection, laughter, argument’—aptly characterize the work of this great contemporary celebrant of the common, and the uncommon reader, Basbanes.”
Karen Long
“First-rate reporting….[EBIR] allows us to step away from our myopic fixation on writers and consider the reader.”
Ellis Henican
“No living person has thought more about the extraordinary power of books than Nicholas Basbanes.”
Kathleen Burke
“[An] admirably wide excursion into literature, history and biography.”
John Harper
“Nicholas Basbanes is the Pied Piper of bibliophiles.”
Los Angeles Times
“Every Book Its Reader reminds us that books, in all their myriad forms, are necessary equipment for living.”
Brigitte Weeks
Nicholas Basbanes has had books and writers running through his veins for most of his lifetime, which makes picking up Every Book Its Reader the equivalent of browsing through a rare-book store, spending the morning in a public library, and visiting your most literate friend -- all in the course of a few hours.
— The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
As in A Gentle Madness and other books, syndicated columnist Basbanes again proves his fascination with the minutiae of bibliophilia, relating with relish how many volumes were in various famous readers' collections, who wrote in their margins, who kept commonplace books, and other book-related ephemera before getting to the heart of this book: his discussions with well-known readers of today. These include Harold Bloom on Shakespeare and the politicizing of literature in the academy; Helen Vendler on her experience of poetry from adolescence on; and the impressive Robert Coles on his literary relationships with writers such as William Carlos Williams and Walker Percy, as well as his own call to action for children around the world. This volume is like a pot in an overenthusiastic cook's kitchen: a little bit of everything has been thrown in. As in cooking, however, too many notes spoil the palate. Basbanes writes fluidly and there are intriguing tidbits-the chapter on the development of religious texts is especially strong-but the book as a whole has no central argument or philosophy to make it cohere. Illus. not seen by PW. Agents, Glen Hartley and Lynn Chu. (Dec.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Basbanes (A Splendor of Letters: The Permanence of Books in an Impermanent World) borrows the title and theme of his new book, inspired by a 1963 exhibition at the British Museum documenting five centuries of the printed word, from one of S.R. Ranganathan's Five Laws of Library Science ("Every book his reader"). Taking "prevailing fashion into account," he focuses on peoples' reading habits and on the books they have read, both obscure and renowned, as well as on the importance of particular books in specific contexts. Basbanes begins by interviewing some of the best-read people alive, among them David McCullough, Harold Bloom, Helen Vendler, and Elaine Pagels; he also mentions a wide variety of contemporary and historical personages. The loosely related stories are often inspirational, making this an engrossing read. Recommended for all bibliophiles and libraries. (With 26 pages of endnotes; index not seen.) [See Prepub Alert, LJ 8/05.]-Martha Stephenson, Univ. of Wisconsin Lib., Whitewater Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Another sampling of what some will call cultural history, others book chat, from the indefatigably bookish author (A Splendor of Letters, 2005, etc.). This time, Basbanes considers how books have "made things happen" and their various effects on readers'-and writers'-lives. This book's organization is a bit haphazard, as we're offered rehashed literary facts and arguments (e.g., about the Shakespeare authorship controversy, history-making works such as Thomas Paine's Common Sense, reading habits of eminent persons, Edmund Wilson's role in creating the Library of America). Still, Basbanes's enthusiasm is winning, and he has fresh, valuable things to say about historian Edward Gibbon's lifelong bibliomania and the habit of annotating one's books (perfected by Coleridge, the master of marginalia). He does provide a nifty seminar of sorts on appreciating poetry, featuring the razor-sharp minds of critics Helen Vendler and Christopher Ricks. Their observations are drawn from the interviews that are this book's best feature. Robert Fagles, who has superbly translated both of Homer's epics, woolgathers incisively about his craft's perils and pleasures. Biblical scholar Elaine Pagels proves particularly eloquent on a range of topics, including the church's suppression of "apocryphal" texts and Dan Brown's iconoclastic bestsellers (and Basbanes adds a gently chastening contrast between American readers' "biblical ignorance" and the thorough knowledge of the Qur'an possessed by most Muslims). Good words emerge from a lively meeting of minds with that "most ardent of bibliomaniacs," teacher-writer-editor-collector Matthew J. Bruccoli, and the resident national intellectual Harold Bloom's plaintivedeclaration, "I think I have read all the books. So now I reread all the books."Like-minded readers may chafe at hearing the story of Johnson and his Boswell for the zillionth time. But we won't stop turning pages, will we?Agent: Glen Hartley/Writers' Representatives LLC
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060593247
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 12/12/2006
  • Pages: 400
  • Sales rank: 994,047
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Nicholas A. Basbanes has worked as an award-winning investigative reporter, a literary editor, and a nationally syndicated columnist. The author of five books, he also writes a regular column for Fine Books & Collections magazine and lectures widely on book-related issues. He and his wife, Constance, live in Massachusetts.

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Read an Excerpt

Every Book Its Reader

The Power of the Printed Word to Stir the World
By Nicholas Basbanes

HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2005 Nicholas Basbanes
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0060593237

Chapter One

The Magic Door

I care not how humble your bookshelf may be, nor how lonely the room which it adorns. Close the door of that room behind you, shut off with it all the cares of the outer world, plunge back into the soothing company of the great dead, and then you are through the magic portal into that fair land whither worry and vexation can follow you no more. You have left all that is vulgar and all that is sordid behind you. There stand your noble, silent comrades, waiting in their ranks. Pass your eye down their files. Choose your man. And then you have but to hold up your hand to him and away you go together into dreamland.
-- Arthur Conan Doyle, Through the Magic Door (1908)

In the early years of the twentieth century a woman named May Lamberton Becker (1873-1958) enjoyed enormous popularity for the "Readers Guide" columns she wrote for the New York Evening Post, and later the Saturday Review of Literature. "No teacher in any university, no bibliographer or encyclopedist can have helped so many in sudden need of knowledge," the eminent scholar and critic Henry Seidel Canby wrote of Becker's taste and acumen. Her stock in trade, Canby marveled, was an ability to highlight the best books in "well nigh every field of knowledge and imagination in her years of service," matching books with readers "so often with gratifying results that she may well be regarded as an institution." Canby's comments were offered as a foreword to A Reader Guide Book, a 1924 collection culled from hundreds of Becker's columns. Dedicated to "the librarians of America in gratitude for countless kindnesses," she offered her choices in general groupings that included philosophy, music, travel, religion, poetry, economics, and history, along with more discrete categories, such as "a bride's bookshelf," "teaching English to foreigners," "studying social work," "the baby's first books," and "getting over the grippe."

In its day, getting the May Lamberton Becker stamp of approval carried the same cachet for a book that a nod from the television personality Oprah Winfrey does today. Most of the titles Mrs. Becker recommended speak for their times. Each section of her guide -- and there are one hundred and eleven-is prefaced by an inquiring letter from a reader. My copy, purchased for $2 at a secondhand bookstore in Oberlin, Ohio, in 1996, bears the bookplate and the signature of a woman, Grace Kelser Willett, along with the date, 1925, written in ink on the front pastedown. Mrs. Willett had lightly marked in pencil a number of choices that piqued her interest: The Happy Traveller by the Reverend Frank Tatchell; Geography and World Power by James Fairgrieve; Our Poets of To-day by Harold Cook; West Broadway by Nina Wilcox Putnam, along with several novels of faraway places and a few anthologies of short stories. To a young man who asked for a list that would give him "something of a background equivalent to a college education," Becker replied that she could, if she wanted, "dispose of this question by saying truthfully that there are no such books. But it would not be fair." Then, ever so gently, she suggested a menu of reading material that would give her correspondent confidence, broaden his reach, and encourage him to go serendipitously in search of other titles. "To read like that is one of the high delights of being a human being, and like all high delights, there must be a certain noble recklessness about it, something quite different from 'calculating profits, so much help from so much reading.'"

My favorite piece in the collection is an essay Becker wrote about a correspondence she had with a woman she never met face-to-face, but considered a kindred spirit all the same. Rarely has the therapeutic power of reading been expressed more poignantly than by this lovely exchange. The friendship began, Becker wrote, when she returned from a month's vacation in the autumn of 1921, and "found on the top of a mountain of mail" a letter written on a single card, "packed in with the skill that comes in only one way -- literary tastes early in life combined with a paper shortage." The return address indicated a rural delivery route -- an R.F.D. -- that elicited yet another bond of sympathy from Becker. "I remember when there were none of these, and I have lived to see a secondhand Ford come climbing the hill to the door of a farmhouse that I knew when it was isolated, bringing all the world to the door with yesterday's newspaper. I watched it wheezing up the valley one calm August morning with not a notion that it was carrying the World War. So I can't even take the letters R.F.D. just as letters; they have too much meaning."

The writer, a farm woman in Pennsylvania whose frugal budget allowed her very little in the way of personal luxuries, had a simple enough request for Becker: "May I ask you to tell me of a few books that you have loved, that have made you sit up and just shout with delight? I am going to buy four new books this winter and I want four friends to stay by me, to read over and over." The woman explained that her family's horses were always needed elsewhere when she wanted to go into town, making trips to the library difficult, if not impossible; what she sought was some can't-miss recommendations for books she could acquire through a mail-order purchase. "It was when she began to give me samples to order from that I realized what books must mean to her on the farm," Becker continued, and thereupon provided a brief summary of the woman's reading, along with her sage comments on the literary fashions of the day. "Now I would not have been a human being had I not packed up four books and sent them off with a note saying that I had . . ."


Excerpted from Every Book Its Reader by Nicholas Basbanes Copyright © 2005 by Nicholas Basbanes. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 18, 2010

    Highly recommended! A bibliophile's must-read!

    The subtitle of this book, The Power of the Printed Word to Stir the World, directly states the book's premise, that books have the power to change lives, and indeed to change history.

    Basbanes supports his premise beautifully, with examples of historical figures, interviews with respected critics, authors, and literary academicians, and with examples of social programs. He also covers the subject from myriad angles, some obvious, some more finely nuanced, and each fascinating.

    To say that I loved this book is possibly an understatement. I first learned of Basbanes when I caught a half-hour long interview with him on Book TV. I was immediately drawn to the program and to him, as one bibiliophile to another. Oh, he's certainly a more serious and erudite bibliophile than I, but I so strongly identified with his love of books - of the printed word. The interview took place in his home, and I was mesmerized by his bookshelves, if a bit envious.

    Every Book Its Reader is everything I expected from Nicholas Basbanes. I strongly intend to re-read it in the near future. I read it this time for pleasure. Next time I'll read more deeply, probably even taking copious notes, (and not just jotting down the titles of interesting books to explore.).

    This, my friends, is a Book! I wonder if any true bibliophile could read this without being touched, moved and inspired.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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